It is 10:15 on a Wednesday morning and I am cupping my hands against the window of a locked Camden Coffee shop, located on Delancey street – I don’t need to give you the door number as you can just follow your nose.
I was relatively sure I arranged to meet George just after 10h but then again, my sense of time had failed me before.
I stand outside the shop for about three minutes when I notice George coming up the road. “I just had to check how much coffee they wanted”. With “they” he meant one of his customers, the The Forge, just a couple of doors down from his own. He unlocks the door and invites me into one of the most authentic shops you’ll find in London. Ever. A small shop, with the expected hessian coffee bags, displayed coffee beans and roasting equipment that has been there long before George flipped the “Closed” sign to “Open” 35 years ago in 1978.
Name: George Constantinou
Been roasting since: May 1978
Learnt to roast on a: Uno 5kg
Now roasting on a: Uno 5kg
Drink: Red Wine
Favourite coffee: My Santos Dark blend, as an Espresso
Home brewing secret: Spend money on a good espresso machine – or at least get an Aeropress
George fires up the roaster for his first roast of the day. “It’ll take about 20 minutes. “We can take them their beans, get a coffee, come back and then we talk, ok?” That sounds good to me. Shortly after we get back, each with a cup in hand, the first customer of the morning arrives. While George bags his coffee for him, he tells me that he used to know George’s father and that there is nothing he enjoys more than hand grinding his own coffee right before enjoying a cup whilst smoking his pipe. I can see this is going to be a good morning.
The second and third customers arrive simultaneously and I am treated to a debate between an avid fan on a manual lever machine, a La Pavoni, and an equally big fan of the more modern bean-to-cup Jura espresso machine. George smiles like someone that witnessed these kind of debates countless times before. “How do you know they are done, are they on a timer?” the La Pavoni fan asks George, referring to the beans currently spinning in the drum. “It’s in my mind’, George replies. Now after having visited many roasters in the last year, I know that time and temperature are the main two variables that are closely measured – sometimes by a computer, plotting it on a screen in real time. But George is a artisan. He looks and smells and listens to what the beans are doing and, judging by what I’m still holding in my hand, he does it extremely well.
George first came to London from Cyprus in 1968 to study medicine.
“In those days my accent was much stronger and to get into medical school, you have to speak BBC English”, George laughs.
He enrolled for mechanical engineering instead and, after qualifying, spent some time as a trainee auto engineer at Rover and Jaguar. He then managed a dry cleaning shop for a large chain with the aim of getting involved in the mechanical aspect of the industry. But George was restless and wanted to do his own thing and started looking into buying a dry cleaning shop as he had the knowledge to run one successfully, but the initial investment needed was very high. So, on his father-in-law’s suggestion, he went to talk to the coffee roaster in the area as he heard it might be for sale. This made sense as George’s grandfather was a roaster back in Cyprus, although George never thought to make a career out of roasting in London.
The roaster, Michael did indeed consider selling the roastery, but he didn’t want to sell it to anyone as he wanted the assurance that the new owner would be a good roaster. George and Michael discovered by coincidence that Michael was actually a very distant uncle of George and that George’s grandfather, taught Michael about roasting! Such serendipity couldn’t be ignored and he agreed to take George on for two weeks to see if he had what it took to become a roaster.
George remembered his first day well. “I was under very clear instruction to only look at what he does and not to touch the roaster for the first week”. During the first two days George did exactly that and served customers whilst observing what was being done in front of the roaster. As they were family, George had the keys to the shop from day one and was tasked with opening and serving the early morning customers. On the third day it was quite busy and George could see that the three bins of coffee from the previous day were not going to be enough.
“By 10:30 Michael still hasn’t showed up and I thought to myself, I’ll just roast some and see how I get on. By 11:45 when he finally did turn up, I handed him the takings of the morning and by looking at the re-filled bins, he realised I must have roasted more coffee. First he was upset but then he had a look at the beans and tasted the coffee. He kept quiet and then said “I’m telling you something George, everything’s perfect!” George attributes this early prodigal success to the fact that he grew up around roasting and also the basic understanding of thermo dynamics as part of his engineering training.
We conclude the interview and I take a last couple of photos of the roastery when another customer enters. She has a familiar banter with George then she tells me about how she can remember, as a child during the war, her family received a clandestine bag of green beans and of how her father had to figure out how to roast it to a drinkable state using a pan. I can’t help to think just how very different the memories must be we all have associated with coffee.
She remarks that this shop is an “antique” and that I’d never find another one like it in London. I agree with her. She turns to George and tells him jokingly “George, you’d soon be an antique as well!” George just smiles. She leaves the shop with two small bags of coffee and this scorcher of a quote that will stay with me for a very long time;
“Coffee is like a beautiful women – she smells nice, promises a lot but she doesn’t always deliver on her promises”.
“I remember serving her the first week I had the shop”, George remarks with his smile I now start to recognise when talking about his long time customers. Obviously, after 38 years, George’s coffee, still delivers.
The Camden Coffee Shop doesn’t have a website but you can see what TimeOut thought of this gem in Camden.